What do Squirrel Girl, Hellcat, Batgirl of Burnside, Ms. Marvel, have in common? They are all representatives of the recent trend of mainstream comics reaching out to a young female audience. These comics are characterized by bubbly superheroes, humor, #relatable millenials, and female empowerment. This trend has been met with open arms as well as skepticism, some praising the mainstream push for comics appealing to girls, others criticizing the trend for “quirkifying” more serious characters, like Barbara Gordon.
But what these characters really have in common is that they come from the same mold, from a character that isn’t in comics mainstream right now: Janet van Dyne.
Introduced in 1963 in Tales to Astonish #44 alongside Hank Pym, Janet van Dyne aka the Wasp was a sensation. Her origin was a mission to avenge her father’s death: with Hank Pym’s help, she became the Winsome Wasp. Together with Hank, she founded the Avengers and named the team after her experience: avenging. Like the name given the team, she also came to define the Avengers’ spirit, often the energy and moral boost the team or individual members needed at crucial times. She was also chairperson of the Avengers during Avengers v1, second only to Captain America in her leadership. Janet van Dyne built the Avengers from the ground up, and as the only female founding Avenger, she has been an icon to fans.
But Janet’s story was never an easy one. In 1981, writer Jim Shooter wrote Janet van Dyne into a domestic abuse plotline with Hank Pym. This became a lightning rod of controversy, with Shooter retroactively blaming artist Bob Hall for an exaggerated action pose, turning what was supposed to be an accidental shove into a deliberate punch. Yet despite the claim of miscommunication, the storyline that followed was unmistakably one of the fallout of domestic abuse, and the consequences of this arc have been brought back time and time again. In their Ultimates universe, Marvel took this up a notch and had an all out brawl between the Wasp and Ant-Man, resulting in Hank attempting to kill Janet with insecticide and Captain America intervening.
Janet is more than just female representation from the Avengers’ start or the icon of domestic abuse victims in Marvel comics. She is a fashion designer and businesswoman. She is a leader and Avenger. She fights supervillains and flirts with Thor, gossips with Scarlet Witch and takes down the mafia with Spider-man. Throughout her more than 50 years of history, Janet has been reinvented many times. First, she was introduced as the strong, capable woman who swore to Avenge her father’s death. She then became The Woman of the Avengers, which often meant that she was written as the worst of female stereotypes and her interest in fashion and romance always portrayed negatively.
After the domestic abuse storyline, she was reinvented yet again as the Avengers chairperson and leader. While her personality wasn’t completely rebuilt, Jan was allowed to be the hero for once. She led the team and earned the respect and admiration of almost all of her fellow Avengers, and those she didn’t were the sexist foils to her feminism. As times change, so do comic book characters. New writers contribute something new to the character, and there is no better poster child for that fact than the Wasp. But through all of her history, she has been cheerful, funny, feisty- the original mold of many of the qualities that make female-lead books successful today. She is the original champion of female friendship, of unapologetic feminity, and the moral compass of the Avengers.
The Wasp is a popular character in the animated series Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, and more recently, a breakout favorite in the mobile game Avengers Academy. Whether on screen or in comics, Janet has always been an icon, and her recent absence can no longer be attributed to Marvel simply not knowing what its fans want. Janet has always been sidelined in favor of her quite frankly uninteresting ex-husband Hank Pym, but the wasp-sized elephant in the room was further shuffled under the carpet.
Following the announcement that Janet van Dyne would be fridged in the cinematic universe in Ant-Man, fans started a protest under the hashtag #janetvancrime. When Marvel released a teaser, ‘Best Beware My Sting’, early last year, fans begun to hope that where the MCU had let them down, Marvel comics would not. Yet the Wasp that would fly her way to a new solo in 2016 was not Janet, but Hope (whoops, I mean Nadia! My mistake.) Whether to sync with the MCU’s Hope Pym or to continue the trend of burying Janet so as not to deal with the baggage of domestic abuse, Marvel has successfully replaced the Winsome Wasp, once again.
Larger than life and shrinking her way into her own solo, the new Wasp, Nadia Pym, makes a huge impact in Unstoppable Wasp #1. Every page of Jeremy Whitley, Elsa Charretier’s and Megan Wilson’s colorful Unstoppable Wasp is uplifting and joyful. Every page focuses on female friendship and science. The guest stars of the issue, Kamala Khan and Bobbi Morse, add to this, supporting her in battle and out in a display of female friendship so sincere it brings a tear or two the eyes of any cynical Marvel fan thinking about what reading this type of comic book means to young girls.
The issue starts off with Kamala and Nadia on their way to the immigration office to sort out Nadia’s citizenship, which is a clever way to recap the heroine’s origins: daughter of scientist and frequent user of the phrase “oops”, Hank Pym, Nadia was raised in the Red Room (like Black Widow) as a scientist (unlike Black Widow) and eventually escaped to track down her father, whom she found was dead by the time she was free. This flashback is interrupted by a giant robot wreaking havoc in Manhattan. Teaming up with Mockingbird and Ms. Marvel, the new Wasp defeats the robot and its operator with a lot of fun in between.
The hopeful conclusion to the issue, with Nadia building her lab in the leftovers of Hank Pym’s legacy and vowing to make everyone rethink the list of Marvel’s smartest characters, is one of the many ways Marvel is (if sometimes clumsily) attempting to carve out a space in its audience for young girls.
But for fans of Jan, this comic is confirmation that there’s little room left for the Winsome Wasp in Marvel comics. Retirement and cameos seem like the only plan for the woman who named the Avengers, and for fans, that’s heartbreaking and disappointing. Just as Marvel decided that Janet should be revamped to focus on her leadership abilities and less on her romance in Avengers v1, in The Unstoppable Wasp it seems that a fashionista has gone out of fashion entirely. The female characters needed now are girls breaking into boys’ clubs, like Nadia and her “Smartest people” list. Janet is left in the dust, too feminine to wear brightly colored spandex and punch supervillains in her own book, it seems. That being said, for young girls, especially those interested in STEM, this comic is more than important: it’s hope. It’s a celebration of female friendship and ingenuity, of optimism and positive energy. It’s appropriate, then, that the titular character is named Hope, because that is what she will symbolize to a lot of readers. As for us Jan fans, we can only hope Marvel will, one day, stop sidelining our favorite Avenger.